The planter mirage: There’s no shame in being an ordinary pastor

Last week, my friend Dave Williams came to see me. The primary intention was to eat some of the awesome Pakistani curry Oldham has to offer. That plan went awry as my go-to curry house decided, due to Ramadan, it would close on Mondays and Fridays. It wasn’t so much that I forgot it was Ramadan as I forgot Muslim run establishments have a tendency to close at random points during this time of year and not notify anyone beyond a sticker in the window.

The other reason he came was to discuss urban ministry. Dave was particularly keen to see what we were doing in Oldham and see if there were things we could learn from each other. Our respective areas are quite different in makeup but there are often things that other places are doing well that can be replicated elsewhere. Aside from all that, I like Dave so it was a good opportunity to have a jolly with a mate, which is all to the good as far as I’m concerned.

One of the things we discussed was church planting. In his write up of our meeting (which you can read here), Dave said the following:

I’m more positive towards the term “church planters” than Stephen, however some big issues/questions [were] raised.

He went on to state in a footnote:

Stephen is not against planting… but believes we need more honesty about what is actually happening.

Both those comments are essentially true but I thought it might be helpful to put some flesh on the bones.

I am increasingly dubious of our use of the term ‘church planter’. I am, in fact, inclined to go so far as to say there is no such thing as a church planter. I am increasingly sceptical of the sheer number of people appropriating that term who have either never been involved in planting a church or have only ever sent others off to a plant. I’m entirely unclear how either of these things makes one a ‘planter’. What, precisely, distinguishes these guys from being pastors who have sent people to pastor other churches?

I understand why the term is applied to those who have been sent off as leaders of core teams to establish new churches. But once you have sent a group of people, established regular meetings at which the Word is being faithfully taught and you are taking communion, why do we continue to call that a plant and the guy leading it a planter? It’s not a plant; it’s a church. He’s not a planter; he’s a pastor (or elder or whatever term your particular polity favours).

I suspect the term ‘planter’ is favoured because we have built an ethereal sense of wonder around planting. At the moment, church planting is in vogue. Evidently, we need more churches and I’m not implying that we shouldn’t be pushing for churches to establish more churches. But as Dave notes in his write-up, I do think we need more honesty about it. Whilst I know there are places making real headway on these things, all too often a snazzy website and shifting believers from one church to another passes as great gospel success.

One of the problems here is that we have so fetishised planting that we view it as the summum bonum. We will call ourselves ‘planters’ because it carries a level of cachet that being an ordinary pastor doesn’t. It sets us apart even though, to those looking on, we appear to be identical to every other pastor pastoring a church. Often, when we do plant, we cling onto the label ‘church plant’ for as long as we can because being a ‘plant’ is sexier than simply being another church. Where we choose to plant is often telling too. Again, whilst there are people genuinely seeking to establish churches where there are none, there are also churches happy to establish congregations on top of other existing churches or in areas close to us that we could reach from where we are. Much of this is driven by the view that church planting is a good of itself. As a result, instead of establishing churches where they are most needed, we set them up wherever we are able and argue that it is simply a good thing to have more churches.

It may be that we want to own the label ‘planter’ because we are keen to see churches planted. But apart from a handful of megachurch pastors who want to build as big a church as possible, who isn’t interested in planting? Whilst some are simply overly cautious, having 300 members or more and still feeling like everything is too fragile to consider planting out, most pastors I know talk about wanting to plant ‘when they’re able’. Does that make them planters? If a guy has sent people out to start a new plant, does he become a planter then? If the guy leading the new church is a planter because he’s leading a church plant, what makes the bloke sending him a planter when he hasn’t led a church plant? How do we account for churches who have planted churches but whose pastors remain adamant they are still pastors just as they were before?

I have no problem with people planting churches for a variety of reasons. I accept that if you outgrow your building, it makes sense to send a chunk of your congregation off to another unreached area and establish a new work there. Whilst it is not what we would hope for, sometimes churches are established out of painful church splits. These things do happen and the Lord can turn them for good. Nonetheless, I think we need a bit of honesty about it when it happens. Sometimes it is not a result of strategic vision, it is just a sensible – or inevitable – consequence of what is going on. That’s no bad thing, but let’s just be upfront about what it is. By the same token, let’s stop planting churches just because we decide planting churches in inherently a good thing to do regardless of where they are and what they are doing. Let’s plant where churches are needed rather than for the sake of being able to say, ‘look! We planted a church!’

At the same time, let’s recognise that we do not plant church plants. We plant churches. Once you have planted a church, it is a church. Once you have established your plant as an independent church, you are no longer a planter but a pastor. And yes, you may well grow your church and plant again. But you will not be the planter, you will have been the pastor who sent off someone else to pastor another church. When we recognise that there is no special category for pastors who may ascend to the dizzy heights of being ‘planters’, we might just find fewer people adopting the term. There are pastors and there are those sent to pastor newly established churches. There is no shame in it.